We start to have problems recalling information as we grow older. For example, you might be slow to retrieve the name of an acquaintance you haven’t seen in years or a television show you watched a few weeks ago. The information is still there, almost on the tip of your tongue, but the retrieval is a bit slower. These types of retrieval problems are typically nothing to worry about. We all have them, especially during mid-life and later.
But, some memory issues are more concerning. The risk of developing more serious memory issues goes up with age. It’s no secret that dementia is at epidemic proportions in older people with the most common form being Alzheimer’s disease. There’s no guarantee that you won’t develop Alzheimer’s disease, but lifestyle plays a substantial role.
As you might expect, exercise has powerful effects on brain function. And why shouldn’t it? When you start exercising, oxygen and glucose delivery to the brain goes up. In fact, a recent study shows that high intensity exercise, like HIIT training, actually makes you more brain more efficient and has a potent impact on metabolic health as well.
High Intensity Exercise: What a Study Showed
In a recent study, researchers asked previously sedentary men and women with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes to take part in a 2-week exercise session. One group did high intensity exercise interval sessions on an exercise bike 3 times per week for 2 weeks. The second group rode the bikes at a moderate intensity. Before and after the exercise session, researchers used PET scanning to look at participants’ brains.
What they found was that high intensity exercise improved the brain’s efficiency. The brains of people who have diabetes suck up even more glucose than the brain of a healthy person. But, as a diabetic loses weight, their brains take up less glucose because the brain becomes more efficient at using the fuel it has and doesn’t have to rely on the body to deliver as much glucose.
As it turns out, high intensity exercise, even a single session, improves the brain’s efficiency. In response to a heart-pounding exercise session, brain cells become better at using the fuel they already have. Remember, the brain is an energy sucker. It uses almost 20% of the glucose that circulates in the bloodstream for fuel. So, it’s energy demands are high. In the study, high-intensity exercise also improved insulin sensitivity, how well cells of the body are able to take up and use glucose. Higher insulin sensitivity is linked with better metabolic health and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, as it means the pancreas has to produce less insulin to get glucose into cells.
What about the moderate-intensity exercise group? They didn’t fare as well in terms of enhancing brain efficiency. The moderate-intensity sessions didn’t improve how well brain cells took up glucose. However, even the participants who did moderate-intensity exercise enjoyed improvements in insulin sensitivity and that’s a plus for metabolic health. Improvements in insulin sensitivity are linked with a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Exercise: Good for Your Brain and Metabolic Health
Other studies support the positive impact that both high intensity exercise and moderate-intensity exercise have on insulin sensitivity. A study carried out at the University of Turku in Finland found that both high intensity exercise and moderate-intensity exercise improves insulin sensitivity and how the body handles glucose. So, exercise where you continuously move large muscles groups for a sustained period of time improves how insulin functions and is good medicine for diabetics, prediabetics, and healthy people who want to lower their risk of type 2 diabetes. High-intensity interval training has the added benefit of being shorter in duration. With HIIT training, you can get benefits with as little as 10 to 20 minutes of training. The key is intensity!
In terms of brain health, improved insulin sensitivity and brain efficiency bode well for brain health as well. So closely is insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes linked with brain health that some experts call Alzheimer’s disease type 3 diabetes. In fact, one of the things you can do to protect your brain, other than exercise, is to keep your blood sugar in check and reduce the quantity of sugar and processed carbs you expose your body and brain to. Studies in animals show a diet high in sugar disrupts transmission of signals through nerve cells in the brain and this can manifest as difficulty thinking and remembering.
Other Ways to Protect the Health of Your Brain
Although genetics place some people at higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease, there’s much you can do from a lifestyle perspective to lower your odds to developing dementia. We’ve already mentioned the importance of exercise and avoiding sugar and processed carbs. From a diet perspective, a Mediterranean-style diet may be your best bet. Fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients that help reduce oxidative stress that can damage brain cells. In addition, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes fish as a protein source. Fatty fish is a good source of long-chain omega-3’s, a type of fat linked with brain health. Other components of the Mediterranean diet include whole grains, nuts, olive oil, beans, lentils, and modest quantities of red wine.
After eating that Mediterranean meal, make sure you’re giving your body enough rest time. Recent studies link inadequate sleep with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s diseases. There’s also some evidence that being socially isolated, not challenging your brain, and experienced chronic loneliness and depression increase the risk. A multi-faceted approach is best for preserving brain health. Also, make sure you’re not practicing unhealthy habits, like smoking or excessive use of alcohol.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know why exercise, especially high intensity exercise, is so important for the health of your brain and your metabolic health in general. With so many health benefits, you can’t afford to sit on the couch! So, take advantage of the “too good to pass up” benefits that exercise offers.
Forbes.com. “Study: Exercise Makes the Brain A More Efficient Machine”
Science Daily. “High-intensity interval training rapidly improves diabetics’ glucose metabolism”
Alzheimer’s Association. “Prevention”
Harvard Health Publishing. “What can you do to avoid Alzheimer’s disease?”
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